10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in Hospital

Wednesday November 30, 2022

Being in hospital during the Holidays means children and parents cannot join the usual festivities.  But you can bring festive spirit and familiar traditions into your hospital space to delight and sustain you all.  While cancer has no regard for festivals, Rb Survivor, Abby White shares 10 ways to support your emotional wellbeing, and your child’s, and welcome festive cheer during a yuletide inpatient admission.

Close up image of a single red bauble hanging from the branch of fir tree. The bauble captures various light and shadows, including one point of bright white. The overall impression is similar to the white reflex captured within a red eye reflex in the early stages of retinoblastoma.

No one wants to be in hospital through a Holiday celebration, especially a child, or the child’s family.  If you are separated from immediate family members, you will feel their absence more acutely than during other hospitalizations.  You’ll be aware of friends and relatives celebrating beyond the hospital, and you may feel left out and detached from the festivities.  Feelings of sadness, even devastation, are normal – your family is in this very hard situation through what should be a magical childhood and family experience.

Your child may be in hospital for this Holiday, and unable to visit all the festivities beyond these walls, but you can bring the celebration to your child, and to yourself.  The fun of familiar traditions, and wonder of the occasion can delight and strengthen your child’s spirit, and your own, beyond measure.

Here are ten suggestions to help you navigate your emotions through this different Holiday season, support your child in managing theirs, and welcome festive cheer into your hospital space.

1. Create a Coping Plan to Welcome the Festive Spirit

With festive greetings, we wish one another the spirit of the season; peace, comfort, joy, and hope.  Now more than ever, this is an important time for each family member to consider what the Holiday spirit means, and how you can create these feelings.

Identify three or four emotions that define the festive spirit for you.  For each festive spirit emotion you identify, write down three things you can access in your current situation that will help you connect with that emotion.  You can then refer to this plan and use these actions to help you rebalance in difficult moments and through rough days.

Here is my example

Festive Spirit: Peace, Comfort, Joy, Hope.

How I will invite the Festive Spirit in when I feel wobbly


  1. Breathe deeply 3 times – 5 counts in, hold for 7, out for 9 counts (you can adjust the numbers as needed, such as 3-5-7).
  2. Listen to a short guided meditation (I have many saved on my phone that I already know bring me back to peace).
  3. Grounding myself by focusing on each of my senses:

Taste: apply a lush edible lip scrub.

Smell: Apply a discreet holiday scent roller to my wrists, or fill the room with some seasonal aromatherapy.

Touch: Turn my velvet hair scrunchie through my hands, noticing its soft texture, inner elastic, and folds of material.  Or ease away tension at the end of a long day with a Lush massage bar.

Sight: Watch the sparkle of lights reflecting on baubles and tinsel on the tree, or look at the pictures on festive cards sent by friends, and make up stories about them.

Sound: listen to my “Christmas Calm” or “Christmas Jazz” playlist, full of gentle, relaxing festive music.


  1. Snuggle with my beautiful guide dog.
  2. Enjoy a Lush Massage bar – the scent and self-massage is truly relaxing.
  3. Put on fleece PJs, which were a Christmas gift from a friend who wanted me to take more “down time”. So in addition to feeling deliciously snuggly, they are a reminder that a friend notices and cares.


  1. Listen to one of my uplifting Christmas playlists, full of jazzy, brassy, classical and traditional music.
  2. Eat a lovely Holiday treat, really paying attention to its flavours and texture, thinking of everyone who grew and transported the ingredients, and made the final product.
  3. Write down three things for which I am grateful, describing the experience in detail, and why I am thankful for it.


  1. Assess the content I’m exposing myself to (for example, the news, TV/movies, podcasts/radio, social media, web browsing, conversations with friends/family), and cut out the unnecessary negatives.
  2. Learn a new skill or broaden my knowledge to help make life easier or less stressful (for a parent in hospital, this could be learning a new child life support like comfort positions, or a relaxation technique).
  3. Seek people who can lift me up right now or help make the road ahead easier (for a parent in hospital, this could be a call to a friend/relative, conversation with a nurse or chaplain, asking a child life specialist for a planned session to help with a specific concern or upcoming procedure, or writing down your questions for the doctor to help stop them constantly racing around your mind).

Put your Festive Spirit Coping Plan where you will easily see it throughout the day.  I recommend creating a digital copy that you can keep on your phone and computer for quick access when out and about, as well as a print copy placed somewhere visible.

If your child has created a Coping Plan, place it where it can be seen by medical professionals and support staff visiting your room.  This will help them know how they can help your child in difficult moments.

If you have sight loss, like me, and a printed page in the room would go unnoticed, place the coping plan at the top of a file you open daily.  If needed, set a reminder on your phone to read it daily.  Mine is a file on my Notes App, and an additional page at the top of my to-do list, which is linked from my desktop and opened daily.

Look at your coping plan whenever you notice you feel challenged by the experience of being in hospital with your child this Holiday.  Choose one or two activities you can do, either alone or with your child, to help nurture Festive Spirit within your heart.

Six items representing the difference senses are clustered together on a warm red blanket background. A candle in a frosted glass container sits in a white ceramic dish. The lit candle is a soft orange, and light glowing through frosted glass shows the name “The Olive Branch” and the brand, Lush. In front of the candle, a small bottle of liquid lays on its side. An iPhone shows the track “Snowfall” by Beegie Adair, from the playlist “Christmas Jazz”. A card shows a wintery cityscape at night, trees and hedges laden with snow, lights on in windows. In the far bottom right, a single black cat is seen walking past an empty bench in a neighbourhood park. At the front, an oval massage bar with bumps across the top is nestled in a silver oval tin. The Lush tin lid lays in front. To the right, the honey-brown contents of a small glass jar slightly sparkles in the light. The gold lid in front says “Salted Caramel Lip Scrub, Lush”.

A small collection to enchant all the senses when life is rough.  The Olive Branch scent from Lush may not be Christmassy, but it’s beautifully uplifting and calming; the perfect accompaniment to a quiet Christmas Jazz playlist.  What stories could this cat tell of her night-time wonderings through the city’s silent night? – Plenty of scope to venture into other worlds with my imagination for a while.  The Hottie massage bar from Lush is one of my favourites to help ease out muscle tension at the end of a long day, and the Salted Caramel scrub is deliciously kind to my lips. 

2. Decorations

Many hospitals allow families to decorate their child’s room or bay.  This can be a particular boost during special occasions, when children are missing out on the fun and magic of traditional festivities.  Hospitals have varied policies about the use of electrical equipment, as well as what and how items can be attached to walls.  To avoid disappointment, ask your child’s nurse or a senior ward nurse about rules and restrictions before making plans with your child.

If your child is sharing a room or bay with other children, consider their needs and wishes before putting up decorations, as decorations like holiday lights and scented items may not be appreciated.  Invite children in the room/bay to be involved, so they feel part of the process, and can enjoy some festive cheer too.

Talk with your child first about the characters, colours, textures, scents, and sounds they like most, and any specific ideas they have for decoration.

Share your child’s thoughts with family and friends, and ask them to bring/send a decoration to help you and your child brighten your space.  If you end up inundated with decoration gifts, spread the joy around by sharing decorations with other inpatient families.

Remember to let friends and family know that the following items are usually not allowed on children’s cancer wards.

  • Live plants and cut flowers – they are an infection risk.
    • Alternative: artificial plants/flowers.
  • Rubber balloons – they are a choking hazard.
    • Alternative: Mylar balloons.
  • Naked flame candles – they are a fire risk.
    • Alternatives: a battery operated fake-flame candle.
  • Wax melts – they can be an accidental burn risk.
    • Alternatives: a battery operated or electric diffuser with enclosed oil reservoir.

3. Christmas Tree

Ask a family member to bring in a small artificial Christmas tree (and some decorations) that you and your child can decorate together.  Invite your child to decorate the tree as they wish, or let them direct you in the decorating.  If they are well enough and would like to, help them make some hand-crafted decorations to hang on the tree, or ask if a child life specialist can help your child with this activity.

4. Greetings Cards

Greetings cards are a wonderful way to decorate your child’s space with personal messages of love from family and friends.  Tape get well cards to the bed or storage unit, or thread them onto cotton thread and string them across the room.  Ask family and friends to consider making or buying tactile greetings cards for your child who has sight loss, or who is undergoing treatment that may impair their vision for a time over this holiday season.

5. Festive Cuddle-Ups and Clothing

Bring in your child’s favourite festive bedding, cushion, plush animal, and PJs to enliven their space, or ask someone to bring it in for you.  Brighten the days with novelty socks and sweaters for your child and you.  Consider adding these items to your gift wish list.

Some Holiday socks, slippers, and shoes light up or make a sound with each step taken.  These are great motivation for children just starting to walk, or who need some encouragement to get moving after a period of illness and / or treatment.

A large polar bear stuffed animal sits next to a pair of pyjama bottoms and a top. The bottoms are dark blue, almost black, decorated with snowflakes and white line drawn polar bears in different positions. Some are standing, some sitting, some walking or reaching out. Some wear a subtle red scarf. The top is bright red with a big star formed from many smaller white stars. The stuffed animal is wearing a blue scarf, and its front paws are resting on a pair of bright red socks decorated with sparkly silver snowflakes. The background is a dark red blanket.

Qanuk is one of the cuddliest polar bears around!  These PJs don’t match, but they are most comfortable and warm, and my slip-resistant slipper socks are perfect for walking around cold, hard floors.

6. Holiday Visitors Book

Bring a guest book for visitors to sign and leave Holiday messages for your child and family.  Encourage everyone to leave a message when they visit your child’s room – doctors, nurses, child life specialists, technicians, porters, cleaners, support staff, friends and relatives – they are a all part of your child’s teem!  This is a great way to spread Holiday cheer and build relationships with the staff.

Even if your child is too young to read now, these messages will be a comfort to you and your family, and your young child will have a beautiful record to treasure when they grow up.  These messages will immortalise the love of so many people who accompanied you through this difficult Holiday season.

7. Festive Music

Listening to familiar and loved music is one of the best ways to lift the spirit, aid relaxation, and restore calm.  Every special occasion has a classic musical signature, entwined with our individual musical memories and traditions through the years.  Why not make a playlist with your child, and share stories about some of the songs that are special to each of you.

Be mindful of the noise level, and how it impacts the people around you.  If your child is sharing a room or bay, ask the other children to let you know if the sound becomes disturbing.   You could also invite them to be involved in creating their own playlist, and share some of their own stories about songs that are special to them.

8. Seasonal Scents

Our sense of smell is powerful.  Scent can evoke strong memories, conjure vivid imagination, and stir intense emotion.  The aromas we associate with a joyful season or special occasion can be especially comforting and uplifting, with a positive effect on both physical and mental well-being.

Talk with your child about the smells of the season you each love, and why.  Help them choose their favourite essential oil scents that you could bring into the hospital to fill their space with comfort and joy.

Ask a friend or relative to find your child’s favourite scents, and yours, either as a diffuser oil, scented toiletries, or another festive gift.  Ensure they also bring the necessary plug-in or battery operated diffuser, and that they understand to avoid wax melts and candles.

Think of less obvious ways you could add scents to your child’s environment.  For example:

  • Ask family and friends to bake scented decorations for your hospital space, like these super-simple peppermint stars and apple cinnamon braille ornaments.
  • Mix a few drops of essential oil into playdough – this can also be a great request to family and friends! Try different scents with different colours, like white for peppermint, brown for cinnamon, black for clove, purple for lavender, blue for fir, green for pine, orange for ginger, and red for a frankincense.
  • Purchase a pack of scented markers or paints for crafty kids, or add this to your gift list.
  • Ask your child life specialist what scented play and relaxation options they can offer your child.

If your child is sharing a room or bay with other children, consider their needs and wishes before using scents as these may not be appreciated.  You could ask the other children what scents they enjoy, and include their tastes in your choices.

These two tracks are selections from my Christmas Calm playlist: a beautiful performance of Away in a Manager from cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, and a unique solo piano arrangement of Walking in the Air from “The Snowman”.  I particularly like the latter because the pianist reminds me that we can take something familiar and much loved, and adapt it into something new that’s just as evocative and delightful.

9. Stockings and Gifts

If your child will be in hospital on the gift-giving day of your festive celebration, plan ahead with your whole family about when and where you will open stockings and presents.  This ensures all siblings are involved in the magic of unwrapping and discovering at the same time.

Will you all be together for the opening, or will you be connected by Zoom?  Will you open just one present each on the special day and save the remainder until your child is home?  Who will bring your presents in to the hospital, and when?

Consider how Santa’s Christmas Eve delivery factors into your revised gift-opening plans.  How will you take gifts to the hospital, unseen by your children at home, and where will you store them so your inpatient child does not see them?  Consider storage space, security, and the possibility of theft at the hospital.

Talk with your child life / play specialist about the possibility of donated Holiday gifts that may work in place of your planned holiday gifts until you are home.  This will eliminate the stress of planning delivery and storage of your special gifts, and your children will have a second gift-opening to look forward to when you return home.

Ensure all your children understand the plan and why it has been made this way.  Let them ask questions and express their concerns and sadness that their celebration will be different this year.  Assure them that it’s OK to be sad; you are sad too.

10. Share the Holiday Joy

Hospitals never stop for the Holidays.  The doctors and nurses, child life specialists, technicians, cooks and cleaners who are caring for your child on these special days are all apart from their loved ones too.  A little note or gift of appreciation will brighten their day.

A fun activity to engage your child can be creating small thank you crafts or cards for the staff who help them, and either handing them to each person, or hiding them for each person to find.  Invite your child to make a list of the people they want to thank, and help them decide how they want to say thank you.  Talk to your friendly child life / play specialist if you need craft supplies, or ask someone to bring them in for you.

Final Words

The holiday season brings particular challenges to the whole family when a child is in hospital.  Whether the admission is planned or unexpected, there are many things you can do to ease the stress of separation from loved ones and holiday activities, and nurture the festive spirit in your heart and surroundings.  We hope these ten tips will help bring you this season’s light; may your days ahead be filled with peace, comfort, joy, and hope.

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A close up image of a star hanging below a glowing golden garland, among Christmas Tree foliage.

About the Author

Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.

Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries.  After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.

Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.

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